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What Would Flannery Do?

Of Hillbilly Thomists, Dr. Fishwife, stiffened giblets, and not wasting your life on trash.

Prof. Ralph Wood (pictured above), from his book, Flannery O’Connor And The Christ-Haunted South:

O’Connor is reputed to have altered, with her typical candor, the final word of the dominical saying found in John 8:32: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Even when rejecting the Gospel, we remain irremediably defined and de-centered by it. Hence O’Connor’s celebrated reply when asked why Southern fiction contains such a surfeit of freaks: “I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” In the Bible belt, there is a transcendent norm for measuring anomalies. The biblical plumbline reveals that the real deviant is not the shouting street preacher but the thoroughly well-adjusted man, the completely self-controlled woman, the utterly successful American.

Now. What if I told you that a cable network was going to air a reality program in which a couple goes inside a box, mated while an expert panel chats amiably, waiting for them to finish, then the couple emerges to join the panel to talk about the sex they just had? Would you think that this was an outtake from Idiocracy?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Sex Box:

WE tv announced Thursday that it has ordered nine episodes of “Sex Box,” adapted from the British series of the same name, that will air in 2015. The premise of the show, set in front of a studio audience: Couples go into a soundproof box without cameras. They have sex. Then, they have a frank and honest discussion about what just happened with a group of therapists and sex experts — in front of the studio audience.

The premise aired last fall in Britain — the first episode is on YouTube if you dare. It’s as awkward as you imagine.


“Scientists and researchers cite that people are more trusting and open in the moments immediately after sex due to the body’s natural release of oxytocin, also known as the ‘cuddle hormone,’ the network said in the release. “As a result, post coital couples therapy is more powerful and effective.”

Okay then. In the announcement, WE tv president Marc Juris calls ‘Sex Box’ “one of the most unique and compelling show concepts we’ve ever seen.”

Why don’t they just call it Humpers? That too elegant and allusive for WEtv?

Imagine that you are Marc Juris, and you have one life to live, and you get to the end of that life, and you survey what you’ve done with what you’ve been given, and you see … Sex Box.

I think the point of a good life is not to be Marc Juris. Or anybody associated with garbage like this;  the panel engaging in the postcoital deconstruction are Beverly Hills psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish, a va-va-va-voomy Pensacola TV preacher named Dr. (sic) Yvonne Capehart, and a “doctor of clinical sexology” named Chris Donaghue, whose forthcoming book will boldly focus “on being sex positive, which means challenging our sex phobic and sex negative culture.”

Well, thank goodness. I had wondered when somebody would have the courage to challenge our sex phobic and sex negative culture.

Freaks, the lot of them.

Sex Box is the sort of trivial outrage that normally I would have marked down as a View From The Prytania, if I had noted it at all. Reading about it on my Facebook feed made me feel sad for some reason, probably because I had read an essay this morning on The Imaginative Conservative website. It was a short talk by Prof. Bradley Birzer, in which he introduces himself to his new university community by calling himself a “conservative humanist.” Excerpt:

But, what about that label, “conservative”? Well, let me explain—as I see it—what a conservative is NOT.

  • A real conservative is not a loud, platinized, remade and plastically remolded talking head on Fox.
  • A real conservative is not that guy on the radio who seems to hate everything and everyone.
  • And, a real conservative never wants to bomb another people “back to the stone age.”

My own tradition of conservatism—whether I live up to it or do it justice—is one that is, for all intents and purposes, humanist. I believe there is a line of continuity from Heraclitus to Socrates to Zeno to Cicero to Virgil to St. John to St. Augustine to the Venerable Bede, Alcuin, and the Beowulf poet, to Thomas Aquinas to Petrarch to Thomas More to Edmund Burke. The last one hundred years saw a fierce and mighty revival of the humanist tradition, embracing and unifying (more or less) T.E. Hulme, Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, Willa Cather, G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, Sigrid Unset, Nicholas Berdayeev, Sister Madeleva Wolff, T.S. Eliot, Romano Guardini, Dorothy Day, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Leo Strauss, Flannery O’Connor, and Russell Kirk, to name a few.

George Orwell, both shocked and impressed by the movement, noted in December 1943 that it was nothing more than neo-reactionary: a strange mix of traditionalism in poetry and literature, religious orthodoxy in ethics, and anarchy in politics and economics. I must admit, though I have never called myself a neo-reactionary, almost all those who Orwell reluctantly admired are certainly heroes of mine.

But as I see it, the conservative or humanist—or, the conservative humanist, if you will, only possesses one job and one duty, when all is said and done, and she or he performs it to the best of her or his ability: A conservative attempts to conserve what is most humane in all spheres of life: in economics, in education, in the military, in the culture, in faith, in business, in government, and in community. The conservative is, at the most fundamental level, a humanist, reminding each and every one of us what it means to be human.

Boy, did that resonate with me. I read that and thought that a good way to go through life is to ask yourself, when confronted by a morally or aesthetically murky situation, “What would Flannery O’Connor do?” What would strike her as the wise course of action? Or: “What would Tolkien do?” Would he watch this? Would he read that? Why or why not?

I can’t imagine anyone I admire wanting to have anything to do with something as trashy as Sex Box. More and more, I can’t imagine anyone I admire wanting to have anything to do with contemporary American popular culture, except to warn people off of it. The French Catholic novelist Léon Bloy famously said in one of his novels that the only real tragedy in life is not to be a saint. I think a corollary to that is that the only real tragedy in life is not to be a humanist, whether you are a Christian humanist or the secular kind. Things like Sex Box are anti-human, and anti-humane. Putting it in those terms may elevate a scummy reality show far beyond what it deserves, but I want to suggest that simply rolling our eyes at something like that is insufficient. We live in a culture in which a man and a woman can be willingly induced to copulate off camera, in real time, then come out and speak of their experience to three perfect strangers, and a host, for a television audience. It is inhuman; it is animalistic. It is a freakshow, a grotesque, made all the more so because we live in a culture in which this kind of thing is seen as in questionable taste, but only that.

Nobody gets to their deathbed wishing they had spent more time exploring the collected works of Marc Juris. Nobody breathes their last wishing they had spent their allotted days working as Dr. Fishwife, Beverly Hills psychoanalyst. Nobody wakes up knowing that today they will see their last sunrise, wishing life had given them the opportunity to copulate on TV and talk about their stiffened giblets and moist folds and nodules with complete idiots. A piece of trash culture like Sex Box is ultimately a sad thing. You look at the people involved, and think, “You had one life to live, and this is what you did with it?”

Incidentally, the title of this post asks, “What would Flannery O’Connor do?” Well, from what I’m told by students who studied under him at Baylor, and from knowing him through his writing, his Mars Hill Audio Journal interviews, and from spending time together at the Walker Percy Weekend, if you ask yourself, “What would Ralph Wood do?” you’ll always be on the straight path.